My Humble Reply
On January 16, my fellow cohort at Columbia Political Review, Josh Fattal, wrote an intriguing response to my piece written just a few days prior, “A Modest Proposal.” In my article, I argue that Israel needs to consider engaging Hamas diplomatically in some capacity as an effort to prevent more Israeli-Hamas violence, and to help move the peace process forward. I contend Israel can no longer ignore Hamas on its flank, and that Israel has the opportunity to redefine its engagement with Hamas to “diplomacy,” rather than allow Hamas to continue to comfortably resort to violence: a routine that has bolstered its popularity and reinforced its rule.
Josh’s reaction is expected. He exposes a number of hard truths about Hamas, and reveals its less than stellar track record. He argues that Hamas is “cruel, human rights abusing, and dangerous organization.” I recognize what Josh has to say, and by no means do I condone Hamas’s less than palatable taste for governance, history of violence, and threatening attitude towards Israel. I am no champion for Hamas, and I don’t feel comfortable having to defend the organization. But I also believe Josh’s response to my article only perpetuates the very mentality that has led to the impasse of the peace process, and I would like to contest a number of charges he puts forth.
For one, Josh refuses to acknowledge the changing political attitudes within the Palestinian population, and shifting geopolitical map in the greater Middle East. Josh cites a poll that reveals that 67% of Gazans support a regime change in Gaza, while 18.8% support the Hamas government. Yet that “18.8%” was taken from a poll in June 2009—nearly three and a half years ago. And the “67%” was taken from a March 2011 poll—nearly two years ago, and at a time when the forces from the start of the Arab Spring had not yet fully emerged, ones that have since favored Hamas’s position. He cites a Washington Post article written on November 30 that says the spike in support for Hamas was beginning to fade at that time. Well, a poll taken by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Public Survey between December 13-15 reflects a public opinion which heavily favors Hamas. This, understood in conjunction with the Islamist rise in the region, all bode well for the future of Hamas. Josh argues, “In reality Hamas’s reputation remains unchanged.” However, in reality the recent public display of support for Hamas from the Sunni Arab world has largely legitimized its position regionally. Hamas is now feeding out of the hands of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is imperative to acknowledge these realities, like those expressed in this Washington Postarticle titled, “Hamas finds greater support in changed Middle East.” With the rise of political Islam in the region, and the fall of secular despots, Hamas will make more friends, and become empowered. This too will conceivably facilitate a positive feedback for its domestic position.
And even if Josh is not willing recognize Hamas “as a political actor with achievable goals,” he surely must recognize that Hamas has political power, an increasingly influential voice, and a desire to avoid its own demise. Surely it’s going to work to expand its reach and take over the Palestinian cause. It has demonstrated that it doesn’t reject the political process—a departure from its earlier years. Rather, it emerged in Gaza as a popularly elected party in 2006. The Palestinian Authority is not just “momentarily weak,” as Josh argues. Hamas is undoubtedly on the rise. And no matter what you call it, it is force that can no longer be ignored.
And it is in this way Hamas relates to Israel in the period preceeding statehood in 1948. I must clarify the very specific point I was trying to make. It is largely argued that at the conclusion of the 1967 War, Israel’s defeated Arab enemies finally realized “Israel is here to stay.” That sentiment was not present in the nascent years of Israel’s existence. Yet as time wore one, and Israel beat back conflicts with its neighbors, the unfortunate reality (from the Arab perspective) of Israel’s significance in the region settled in. I foresee this too happening for Hamas as it further entrenches itself in the Gaza Strip, extends over to the West Bank, survives conflicts with Israel, and settles into the region. I do not believe Israel can destroy Hamas militarily, and I assert that the blockade actually empowers Hamas. In this way the status quo favors Hamas. And it is upon this foundation I proceed with my argument that Israel must acknowledge these circumstances, and attempt to redefine the terms of engagement with Hamas in order to break that status quo, and move it in a positive direction. If Josh believes talking to Hamas is misguided and “wrong,” and levels that to working with the “similarly militant and religious Taliban in Afghanistan,” he must first recognize previous international efforts to talk with the Taliban (which have also included Hamid Karzai) as well as very recent ones. And while a discussion about how Hamas and Taliban might relate in nature must be reserved for a future discussion, both the American and Afghan governments recognize the Taliban’s political voice, and its importance in creating stability and in forging any lasting peace within Afghanistan.
And if that means engaging with Hamas, an organization which I believe refuses to recognize Israel for largely political reasons (although undoubtedly there are radicals members too), then so be it. In recent days, a story has emerged about Mohammad Morsi’s vehement anti-Israel remarks made three years ago. Yet do Morsi’s remarks signal that he is about to launch a total war with Israel? No. Because, truthfully, it’s politics. Such rhetoric is replete throughout the Arab world. And even if Morsi believes what he said, he is a pragmatic leader who values stability and is the president of a country with its hands deep in America’s pockets. Morsi is stuck between the ideological and practical forces of his country. And that’s his ideological song. This doesn’t mean his comments are justified, because a truly lasting peace must begin with a respect for the other side. They are in fact vile. But I rather just want to point out that ideology is not the endgame, nor can it be. As a New York Times article points out, “Some analysts said the gap between Mr. Morsi’s caustic statements as a Brotherhood leader and his more pragmatic actions as president illustrated the many factors besides ideology that shape political decisions.”
The same applies for Hamas. It must be approached as more than an ideologically driven organization—as Josh approaches it. With regards to its relations to Israel, Yezid Sayigh argues, “Hamas has a long way to go before it will engage directly with Israel, as the PLO eventually did. Rather, like Israel, it is content to uphold a long truce based on mutual understandings and undertakings regarding security, while maintaining and expanding existing functional arrangements relating to economic activity, infrastructure, and public utilities.” And with regards to its function in the changing Middle East, “Hamas believes the Arab Spring has given it a strategic opportunity to end its isolation and acquire external recognition. But acceptance in the regional order—even one heavily shaped by fellow ‘centrist’ Islamist parties in Egypt and elsewhere—requires Hamas to operate by the system’s rules and interests.” Hamas can no longer act out as a fundamentally violence-fueled organization. In this sense it is a political actor in a system of rules, which must have achievable goals within that system or risk utter failure. Khaled Meshaal, who has expressed more moderate sentiments, will lead Hamas for a third term. Israel now has the opportunity to ever so slightly engage with him, and turn the tables away from violence.
Josh responds that the ceasefire deal Israel made with Hamas “was the shrewd political calculation that continuing an attack that will lead to more civilian deaths is not in Israel’s best political interest.” I agree. In this ceasefire deal too, I point out that Israel’s willingness to talk with Hamas further represents Hamas’s greater leverage in the political dynamic. He doesn’t agree, and by no means has to. But if making such an agreement with Hamas ended the hostilities with Hamas, and encouraged dialogue, even if it was only a “shrewd calculation,” then who is to say that further agreements of that sort will not discourage the outburst of future violence? Why can’t Israel try to make more “shrew calculations?” If diplomatic engagement works to stop violence, then Israel might as well try to employ it to avoid future violence. Not to mention, Israel already nominally recognizes Hamas’s rule of Gaza, as it "holds Hamas responsible" for violence from other militant groups in Gaza, and makes backchannel deals with it to settle on peace.
But does Josh believe peace to be possible? And if so, how should we proceed to achieve it? He argues, “Eliot’s proposition—more a dangerous ploy than a modest proposal—to have Israel engage with Hamas in order to force it to show its true colors cannot possibly lead to a peace settlement that has been impossible even under more peaceful PLO leaders.” I agree that the Palestinian issue is immensely complex. But if if not Hamas, and if not the PLO, then who? Is the peace process dead? If so, then there is no more I can say. My “modest proposal” operates under the assumption that peace can be achieved. Do I believe it wholeheartedly? Of course not. I am not naïve enough to believe that a conclusion to the Arab-Israeli conflict is inevitable. I do believe, however, that we must try to move beyond long held assumptions about, say, Hamas, acknowledge the changing realities around us, and attempt to pursue a new approach. I am fully aware that this policy is not a cure all, and must be implemented alongside others. I admit it is bold. And I admit it is risky. But it is something to consider, and not just pass off as “unrealistically hopeful” just because it’s easier to stand behind the veil of uncertainty and inaction. But above all else, it would irresponsible for Israel to throw aside any peace initiative. There are already grumblings of a third intifada.
Josh asserts that my proposal is based upon a “simplified and narrow understanding of the functions and standing of Hamas.” In truth, I try to weigh all factors involved, and look beyond the fear-mongering narrative pushed forth by the mainstream media. I don’t agree with Richard Falk’s history of outlandish comments, but I am not about to question his capacity as an honest journalist. If he reveals Meshaal’s deputy told him that the clause calling for Israel’s destruction is a “false issue,” then I am not going to dispute it just because of his controversial record. That’s not to say that I viscerally place my faith in Hamas because of Abu Marzook’s observation, but one must admit it is a pretty significant concession, and something to factor into the greater calculus.
I don’t presume that I have all the answers. I recognize that my proposal is, well, modest. But before we go on to perpetuate present failures, it is imperative we consider all options. And the only way to fairly do so is to question long held approaches, reexamine present circumstances, and formulate prudent, yet innovative ideas. My ideas are certainly flawed, and Josh presents compelling arguments. But the peace process is surely at an impasse, and we can no longer dither in recycled rhetoric.